What have foreigners done for Britain?
The London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony lead my discerning Italian housemate to believe that the sum contribution of ‘others who came’ to the shores of Britain was a weird interpretive dance choreographed by Akram Khan. Then came Britain’s first 10,000m and 5,000m Olympic Golds – double the Golds won by Britain in 1996 – courtesy of Somali immigrant Mo Farah. My housemate remains unconvinced that the value-add amounts to much more. This piece is dedicated to disabusing her of that notion. It is also dedicated to my anti-immigration chums at the BNP, NF, EDL and other alphabet parties that appeal to those who can memorise up to three letters: If you’ve managed to spell ‘immigrant’ and ‘Britain’ correctly in your Google search, welcome!
On diet alone, immigrants just about break-even. The variety of explosions they’ve substituted from those caused by daily beans-on-toast may not be optimal, but they have saved Britain from an eternity of Spam and malnutrition, introducing favourites such as vindaloo, doner kebabs, and chicken tikka masala. And who could object to the convenience of a shop on every street corner?
Consider the iconic, space-efficient, cool and chirpy Mini Cooper – a quintessentially British export that starred, alongside Michael Caine, in The Italian Job, a movie that more than just hinted at English superiority over ‘bloody foreigners’. In fact, the Cooper – as well as its predecessor, the Morris Minor – was designed by one Alec Issigonis, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, also the place of origin for some of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s ancestors.
Where would English cricket be without Chennai-born Nasser “Pappadum Fingers” Hussain? Referred to by The Times’ chief sports writer as ‘the most significant cricketer to have played for England since the war and perhaps the finest captain to hold the office’, Hussain turned English defeatism on its head and led England from the bottom of the Test rankings to third, and in a position to rise further.
England can thank Amir Khan’s parents for birthing in Bolton a world-beating boxer and Olympian, as well as Naseem Hamed’s. The pugilist’s sole defeat against 36 victories and 31 knockouts, many of which came within two rounds, earned him pundit Steve Bunce’s accolade of being the best British boxer of all time.
Let’s not forget, of course, the Premier League which is just that – the world’s best football league – courtesy its meritocratic and cosmopolitan nature, with 60% foreign players hailing from over 60 nations. It says something when a league’s sixth-ranked team can win the UEFA Champions League.
Novelists: Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Booker of Bookers winner Salman Rushdie, who rejected both India and Pakistan for England. Comedy: Goodness Gracious Me, stand-up artist Shazia Mirza. Cinema: East is East, Bend it Like Beckham, rising young actor Riz Ahmed. Rock: legend Freddie Mercury, the Zanzibar-born, Mumbai-bred Parsi, made Queen what it was. Speaking of royalty, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather tried concealing that whiff of Jerry about them by changing their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. We know the truth…
If a leftist public intellectual is what you seek, look no further than Tariq Ali, the U.K.’s answer to Noam Chomsky. Born the grandson of the late Prime Minister of pre-Partitioned Punjab and son of leaders of Pakistan’s liberal elite, he presided over the Oxford Union, adopted England together with a plummy accent and now regales audiences with words (also published as fiction and non-fiction) that have made him an integral part of the Western liberal elite.
Srinivasa Ramanujan brought with him new mathematical theorems to Cambridge from Chennai. Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s unloved Ahmadi Physics Nobel, set up Imperial College’s Theoretical Physics department.
Warriors: Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, Austrian and German émigré scientists, facilitated the swift end of the Second World War with their technology that helped detonate the atomic bomb. In 2009, Britain finally demonstrated her appreciation towards those who served her in Gurkha regiments by allowing them to settle in the U.K.
Infrastructure: What would become of British patients without their 120k+ foreign trained doctors? Death or…yes, death. I simply can’t see polite, queuing and charmingly timid English patients competing with rambunctious Nigerian medical tourists for beds in Indian hospitals.
Indeed, would London have risen from the ashes that it was reduced to by the German blitz to present itself to Olympic fans as the city it is today had Siegmund Warburg, scion of one of the great German-Jewish dynasties, not chosen it as his base? The “presiding genius” of the City for three decades, Warburg developed the market for Eurobonds and orchestrated the first hostile takeover. Finance, now Britain’s main industry, continues to be dominated by ‘bloody foreigners’.
But, truthfully speaking, other than bring comedy, music, drama, literature, intellectual debate, tasty food, sporting prestige, knowledge, medical expertise, royalty, icons, the means to win wars and relevance to the global economy, perhaps my housemate has a point – what else, besides interpretive dances, have immigrants brought to Britain?
Sixteen hundred years ago, Britain saw the mass exodus of an immigrant population that had brought them Londinium, a major commercial, imperial hub. Thereafter, London, together with the rest of Britain, descended into the Dark Ages. Sobering thought.
Imaduddin Ahmed is British and Pakistani, works in development and finance in Rwanda and tweets at @ImadAhmed
The views expressed are solely those of the author.